In The Anxiety of Influence, critic Harold Bloom promulgated a theory of the Oedipal struggle in which writers engage with the forebears they wish to supplant. In the work of David Foster Wallace, critic A. O. Scott found the great postmodernists (Nabokov, Barth, Pynchon) exerting nothing less than a “panic of influence.” Now the spirit of Wallace, carrying the genetic imprint of his predecessors, bears down on current practitioners of the lyric essay. As literary father to essayist Joshua Wheeler, his presence is manifest on the young writer’s every page, expressing what could be called a liturgy of influence. As he explores the absurdities and oddities of his New Mexican home state in the collection Acid West, Wheeler genuflects to Wallace’s self-conscious self-consciousness. He also lights a candle to the memory of Hunter S. Thompson. Subject matter? That debris in the air is what’s left of traditional restraints on it. The tangential is central. And everything gets connected, sometimes by sole virtue of inclusion.
New Mexico is a state that remains peculiarly mysterious to those who, unlike Wheeler, did not grow up under the iconic sun he calls its “god of infinite love and scorn.” Apparently it is sometimes inscrutable even to those who did, what with pupfish, glowing sands, every molecule of desert haunted if you look hard enough. In the first of these twelve essays (plus introduction), the visitations also include baseball and drone warfare; there is a control center in the author’s hometown of Alamogordo. But that’s a short one. The next, clocking in at over fifty pages, has a lot more: the Trinity bomb blast, the legacy of downwind contamination, the disconnections of Applebee’s cynically commercial nostalgia, and — in a DFW-patented footnote itself the length of an essay, with its own linked digressions looping back to the originary topic in a finally rather classical way — John Wayne and Howard Hughes and the metaphor of a blindfolded projectionist. In describing the energetic contents of Acid West, it’s hard not to fall into polysyndeton. Enjambing sentences with repetitions and symbols and irony and affectations and asides is the author’s favorite mode.
Sand and gravel and we are in Southern New Mexico again because we are walking in the glass of so many broken bottles too. The sidewalks cracked and crumbled and disappeared a ways back . . . Firecrackers all around and dogs and the streets littered with mortars of all sizes and kids of all sizes wearing no shirts in the junkyards of houses that should be condemned, adobe going back to dirt and no parents in sight and the kids running off as their fireworks explode on the ground, explode accidentally on the ground as the kids convulse with that kind of maniacal laugh-cry that is the one true trait setting us apart from apes.
As the ghost of John Wayne would say, Well, alright. It’s an appropriate appraisal given that this laconic commentary, infinitely expansive in its resonance, is invoked in an epigraph and at intervals throughout the book. It is obviously meant to reflect on the impossibility of capturing this bizarre yet utterly emblematic American place — and thus on the act of going ahead and writing about it anyway. Of course the subjects — the Space Dive of 2012, in which a man here named only “our daredevil” jumped from a balloon twenty-four miles up; Spaceport America, still waiting in the desert to change the future of intergalactic travel — are nominal. What’s truly important hides under the surface. Dig down, layer after layer. Float theories and possibilities, then stare at what’s been unearthed. Uh-oh. Either too much, or not much at all. The only way to encompass such an idea? “Well, alright.”
There is no question Wheeler is smart. He is up to taking on New Mexico’s once grand hopes for success — and their desiccated remains today — on a prominent stage. He is up to facing down the personal essay; the state’s pioneer history seen through the lens of his family’s; the abundant ironies presented by the filming of an archaeological dig for a huge cache of cartridges of Atari’s failed E.T. game (finding echoes in the story of the Shroud of Turin, connected to Alamogordo — wait for it — by way of a small museum dedicated to it in the southwestern desert). The open question is whether Wheeler knows it. By the rules of the post-postmodern essay married to gonzo journalism, everything witnessed or thought is the only limit to suitable subjects, with the implication that these too must spin off into eternity.
But by the rules of assured command of a chosen form, Wheeler’s prolixity sometimes seems the product of someone who doesn’t quite trust himself. So he says more about more, occasionally repeating it for emphasis. He’s that friend at the bar, admittedly astute and entertaining, who a few beers into the evening is manically rafting the endless rapids of his own stream of consciousness. You may scratch your head when he starts drawing parallels between acupuncture needles used at a grassroots insane asylum in Juarez, the daggers of the Sicarii, steel bullet casings, and a dog’s ears. Or you may figure you just haven’t had enough to drink (or some of that substance suggested by the title) to be able to appreciate rhetorical pyrotechnics of such level. What is one man’s verbal tic is another’s stylistic signature; what is one woman’s version of manspreading, taking up more space than the topic warrants, is another’s rich profusion.
Is New Mexico “the very epicenter of humanity’s dark time”? Acid West aims to make the point that something about the clarity of its air and the view it permits to galaxies beyond ours, or its dry sands, or the people who can take it and make it there, clarifies something both simple and complex about America: it’s messed up. But in some really interesting ways. Let Joshua Wheeler show you just how much.